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January 25, 2013

Expert: State lacks in getting students to jobs

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana has an abundance of vocational education opportunities but a poor record of keeping students in the programs and getting them trained in well-paying jobs that demand more technical know-how.

That was the message delivered Friday by an economic development expert to a group of 150 vocational education and workforce development officials from around the state.

“You have a lot of students who enter these programs ... but few of them who ever complete,” said Brian Bosworth, president of FutureWorks, a consulting company that has been studying Indiana’s “skills gap.”

Bosworth spoke at the Indiana Education and Workforce Innovation Summit, sponsored by the University of Indianapolis. Earlier in the day, Gov. Mike Pence told the same audience that Indiana needed to do better job aligning education to the needs of employers if it wanted to reduce the state’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate.

Pence is pushing a plan that would create regional councils around Indiana where businesses and educators would craft curriculum for vocational programs in high schools to better prepare students for local jobs, especially those in manufacturing.

“I think there are going to be opportunities for collaboration and resources far beyond traditional streams,” said Pence.

Pence also repeated his call to return vocational education “to every high school in Indiana.

But Bosworth, in his remarks, said the availability of vocational education isn’t the problem. It’s getting students into vocational programs that provide them with the technical skills needed to land a good-paying job, then keeping them in those programs once they get there.

Among the findings that Bosworth shared with his audience: About 100,000 of Indiana’s 330,000 high school students take a vocational education class every year. But only about 10,000 students graduate with both a high school diploma and a concentration — or six credit hours — in a vocational or technical field.  

And few high school students — 15 percent at most — that do take vocational education courses in manufacturing or pre-engineering go on to pursue post-secondary training in those fields.  In Indiana’s two-year colleges, only about 10 percent of students enrolled in a technical program of study complete their degree.

Pence, who’s been in office for less than two weeks, has made vocational education a priority for his administration.

He said the issue came to his attention on the campaign trail, when he heard from manufacturers that they were having a hard time filling positions that require specific job training, rather than a college degree.

The problem is significant: According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, about 7,000 manufacturing jobs went unfilled in December.

Also speaking at the summit was Mark Gerstle, vice president and chief administrative officer at Cummins, Inc., a global manufacturer of engines which has its headquarters in Columbus, Ind. Gerstle said students are coming out of Indiana’s high schools and colleges ill-prepared to work in industries that require high-tech skills.    

He said 30 percent of Cummins’ employees in Indiana were born and educated in other countries. “We can’t find enough people in our own state to hire…” Gerstle said.  “It shows what a sad state of affairs we’re in.”

Indiana’s new superintendent of public instruction, Glenda Ritz, also spoke at the summit, saying she agreed that schools needed to help students focus on vocational and technical careers, but offered few details on how to do that.

Ritz, a Democrat elected in November, was welcomed by the Republican Pence, who said they shared “common ground” in their interest in vocational education.

Ritz, a schoolteacher by training, said students needed to have opportunities like she did when she took part in a cadet-teaching program while in high school.

“I knew that was what’s for me and headed on my path,” Ritz said. “All kids, all careers need to have that kind of chance to explore at the high school level, to get that relevance to their coursework and to know where they might be headed.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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